6th District hopefuls trying new strategies to campaign, win, learn

It's no surprise that candidates with less cash say money isn't everything in the race to gain a seat in Congress.

But in one race - the Democratic primary for the 6th District seat held by Republican Rep. Peter Roskam - even the candidate with the second-most money sees fundraising as a lesser concern.

Sean Casten, a 46-year-old engineer and entrepreneur from Downers Grove, had $409,431 in his campaign coffers at the end of the year, according to financial reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. He's already loaned his campaign more than that: $430,000.

"There's a total necessary evil of the money piece," Casten said. "Unless you have cash in the bank, people don't pay attention to you, and it almost doesn't matter if you plan on spending it."

But the novice candidate says the top thing his campaign money buys is time.

"If you don't have the ability to self-finance," he said, "you basically have no free time to learn about how to actually do the job you want to do."

With the extra hour or two each day he's not spending on fundraising, Casten says he's calling experts who can help him get up to speed on pressing federal issues.

Former Mayo Clinic experts have taught him about health care. Macroeconomic specialists from prominent universities have shared insights on the national economy. Casten said every expert he's contacted has returned his call, willing to share their knowledge with someone who has a chance to represent the region in Congress.

But Casten is only one of seven Democrats who want that chance. And whoever wins the primary March 20 still has to face Roskam on Nov. 6.

Every Democrat in the field is employing a different strategy to try to advance to the fall.

Ryan Huffman's strategy is grass-roots, social media, big-money-not-necessary.

Huffman, a 31-year-old data analyst from Palatine, says he's trying to change the game of getting elected so it's no longer all about money and the connections it can buy.

"Politics is changing," he said, "and my campaign is setting out to prove that a strong message is more important than a big checkbook."

Huffman's campaign had $1,826 at the close of 2017, according to year-end reports.

The fact most candidates spend hours a day asking donors and corporations for money is the reason even the best-intentioned hopefuls end up prioritizing the wealthy, he said.

With a network of nearly 100 volunteers, printed marketing materials and a "ground game" plan, Huffman said he should be able to connect with 40,000 Democratic households before March 20.

"While all of my opponents are fighting on the same turf that typical candidates always do, I'm trying something completely different," he said. "I haven't made one fundraising call during this campaign, and I won't start now."

Becky Anderson Wilkins, a 59-year-old Naperville bookseller and city council member, said she's avoiding any lobbyist money so she can run an independent campaign. She said she'll use her time and money to explain her "commitment to expanding access to affordable health care, reducing the influence of money in politics and standing up for middle-class families."

Carole Cheney of Naperville, a 56-year-old former congressional district chief of staff who has worked as a journalist and attorney, said her strategy is to run on what she's already done, not what she plans to do.

As chief of staff for Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Foster of the 11th District, Cheney said she worked to solve constituent problems with Social Security, veterans and disability benefits, and tax returns. Under her direction, Cheney said Foster's office "met with constituents, listened to them and delivered results."

She said she's confident she could do the same. That's why Cheney said she's running an "aggressive campaign" until the primary with volunteers contacting voters and paid communications reaching the masses.

Jennifer Zordani, a 54-year-old regulatory and financial services attorney from Clarendon Hills, says she's running a "people-powered" campaign but keeping her strategies close to the vest for the final five weeks.

Called the front-runner by some because of her race-leading fundraising of $513,086 at the end of last year, the 58-year-old Kelly Mazeski of Barrington Hills is touting her national endorsement from EMILY's List, which focuses on getting pro-choice, Democratic women elected.

She's also running on her personal story of surviving breast cancer and joining the race the same day Roskam voted to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Amanda Howland, a 65-year-old civil rights attorney and College of Lake County trustee, said during a forum in December that her differentiator is experience.

This isn't her first time running for the 6th District seat, and if she beats the rest of the Democrats and advances to November, it won't be her first time facing Roskam, either.

"Now that I've run once and have done well ..." she said, about her 2016 campaign, "you have someone in office willing to listen and work for you."

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6th District boundaries

The 6th U.S. Congressional District of Illinois takes the shape of a "C" and stretches from Naperville to Tower Lakes in parts of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry Counties. The district includes all or parts of the following communities: Algonquin, Barrington, Barrington Hills, Bartlett, Burr Ridge, Carol Stream, Cary, Clarendon Hills, Crystal Lake, Darien, Deer Park, Downers Grove, East Dundee, Elgin, Forest Lake, Fox River Grove, Glen Ellyn, Gilberts, Hawthorn Woods, Hinsdale, Hoffman Estates, Inverness, Kildeer, Lake Barrington, Lake in the Hills, Lakewood, Lake Zurich, Lisle, Lombard, Long Grove, Naperville, North Barrington, Oak Brook, Oakbrook Terrace, Oakwood Hills, Palatine, Port Barrington, Rolling Meadows, South Barrington, Sleepy Hollow, South Elgin, St. Charles, Tower Lakes, Trout Valley, Warrenville, Wayne, West Chicago, West Dundee, Westmont, Wheaton, Willowbrook, and Winfield.

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